Indians shifting from contender to comedy

Michael Rushton, MLB Contributing Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The Cleveland Indians' red-hot start to the season had all the makings of a comeback story tailor made for Hollywood.

American League Central champions as recent as 2007, the Indians had fallen on hard times over the last couple of years. Since their run to the American League Championship Series four seasons ago, the Tribe haven't posted a record above .500 and have traded a plethora of talent out of town, including CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Kerry Wood and Victor Martinez. Cleveland finished 25 games out of first place a season ago, with only long-time doormat Kansas City preventing the club from finishing in last place.

Few could have blamed Indians fans if expectations weren't that high for the 2011 season. However, seeing is believing and an incredible beginning to the season, fueled by the best home start in club history -- 14-2 through 16 games -- had Cleveland thinking division title through much of May.

In fact, the Tribe were a season-high 15 games over .500 on May 23 at 30-15 and owned a seven-game lead for first place in the division.

However, Cleveland has lost 10 of 13 since and no longer looks like the summer blockbuster it did a few weeks ago. The Indians' lead atop the AL Central has fallen to just 1 1/2 games over the Detroit Tigers, and Progressive Field, where they dominated at the onset of the season, has turned into the location of a horror film.

Asdrubal Cabrera's emergence as team offensive leader could also show what is wrong with the Indians' offense as of late.
The Indians' 6-4 loss to the Minnesota Twins on Monday, their fifth straight overall, was the club's seventh defeat in a row at home, its longest losing streak as the host since June 12-26, 2003. Cleveland hasn't lost eight in a row as the hosting team since June 8-21, 1975 at the old Municipal Stadium.

The Tribe have been operating at a B-movie level over their current skid, hitting just .188 and averaging two runs per game while getting shut out twice in that span. So, it is now fair to ask the question: Are the Indians showing their true colors or are they just in a prolonged slump?

"We're struggling at the plate right now," manager Manny Acta said after a 4-0 loss to Texas on Saturday.

One thing that is certain is that shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera has played the role of best leading actor for the Indians, swatting a team-leading and career-high 12 homers this year to go along with 42 RBI and a .308 batting average. A .373 hitter since May 21, expect Cabrera to be roaming the field among the other big-name talents in July at the All-Star Game.

Cabrera's emergence as team offensive leader could also show what is wrong with the Indians' offense as of late. After all, the 25-year-old is Cleveland's major power threat right now despite the fact that he came into the season with just 18 career homers over his previous four campaigns.

Travis Hafner mirrored Cleveland's quick start by hitting .345 through 32 games, but has been on the disabled list since May 20 due to a right oblique strain. Coming off left knee surgery, Grady Sizemore is batting just .268 through 27 games, while Shin-Soo Choo, Matt LaPorta and Carlos Santana are all hitting under .250.

On the pitching side of things, the trades of Sabathia and Lee in combination with inconsistency from Fausto Carmona has left the Indians without a bankable face at the top of the rotation, though Justin Masterson and Josh Tomlin were forming a solid 1-2 punch earlier in the year.

Masterson, though, hasn't won since April 26 despite a 3.28 earned run average through 12 starts, while Tomlin has been blitzed for 16 runs and 27 hits over his past three starts. That includes six runs in the setback to the Twins on Monday in which the right-hander struggled with his command.

"It's very uncommon for him to bounce so many of them [pitches], but everybody has their days," Acta said of Tomlin. "I guess he was trying to bury them and make sure he didn't hang any with two strikes."

Directors and producers often rely on technology to overcome what they can't create themselves. While the Indians would love to CGI themselves a true ace and a few more productive bats, the young club shouldn't get too down on itself for its recent struggles.

Cleveland is still playing with house money in 2011 and a run at the playoffs was perhaps a bit of a stretch for a club that is still in pre-production. Instead, the franchise should use this season as part of the learning curve with an eye towards the bigger prize next year.

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